Communication issues at the heart of heated council discussion

Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Tensions simmer beneath search for Parks and Rec interim director position

What started out as a discussion on whether or not an interim director would be hired for the Parks and Recreation Department, quickly turned into a heated discussion on oversight and lack of communication.

The interim director would fill in for Kevin Nelson, who recently left the position to take a job in Mitchell, South Dakota. Mayor Steve King indicated  that a plan was currently in place to spread the workload throughout the department and that there was no need for an interim director at this time.

However, Member At-Large Jeff Austin, who was clearly frustrated, brought a motion to the floor to allow Parks and Recreation Board President Helen Jahr  and members of the public to speak on the topic of hiring an interim director and that the Parks and Rec Board should have a say the matter.

“I’m disappointed that this was just a discussion among the council,” Austin said. “I think we are setting a bad precedent. If [Parks and Rec Board] feel the need and want a director … I think that is what we should be acting on.”

Austin was joined by First Ward’s Rebecca Waller, who is also a member of the Parks and Rec Board, in wanting to hear from the public, something that was initially denied by King.

However, after Austin brought the motion forward, the council voted unanimously to allow public comment.

“I think we’re doing a disservice to the Board, especially by not letting the board president speak,” Austin argued.

But before Jahr came forward there was a back-and-forth between board members as to proper oversight.

Did it fall to the City Council or should it be done by the Parks and Rec Board?

This led to a concern over a timeline for hiring a replacement, which Waller thought was unrealistically short. With six applicants currently, the city is looking to conduct interviews in the near future in a somewhat expedited manner, however, Waller pointed out there is no telling how long the hiring process might take depending on the quality of the current candidate pool, and ultimately provides enough reason to hire an interim director.

“We would like that responsibility to help hire,” Waller said, speaking from the perspective of the Parks and Recreation Board. “Our position here is we would like someone to be in charge temporarily while we attempt to find a leader.”

Waller argued that the interim director would act as a catalyst between the two boards and give stability to the department.

As the frustration mounted, Second Ward Councilman Jason Baskin questioned how it even got to this point, turning the conversation to the failure of communication throughout the process.

“I don’t know if this needs to be this controversial,” he said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t take any of the 14 off-ramps before we got into a public fist fight.”

This sentiment was echoed by the Third Ward’s Joyce Poshusta, who said: “There were communication issues that need to be looked at and fixed with the new director.”

Eventually, Jahr was able to present her case for hiring an interim director, along with supporting testimony from former Parks and Rec board member Gretchen Ramlo and former director Kim Underwood, who herself first served as an interim director following the death of Dennis Maschka before being hired as the director.

However, things eventually turned to communication once again.

“The way Kevin left … he said there was no communication to him that there would be a point person,” Jahr said. “There was no direction to the Parks and Rec department about how we were going forward.”

All three bolstered the need for an interim director considering that the spring and summer seasons are quickly approaching, marking the busiest time of year for Parks and Recreation.

When all was said and done, the board voted 4-3 against hiring an interim director, with King breaking a 3-3 tie, claiming it was for the “efficacy of the process.”

First Ward Councilman Oballa Oballa abstained.

Discussion once again returned to the matter of poor communication between departments during the public comment portion of the meeting when a commenter inquired about a contract situation with tree trimmers within the city and having been told he would need to take the matter up with Human Relations and City Administrator Craig Clark, which people unsatisfied with the process and lack of communication.

“It puts us in corners,” Baskin vented. “What we need to do is look at our own selves and how we communicate. There’s got to be a better way to do this because Parks and Recreational shouldn’t be this controversial.”

Austin took a more pointed approach expressing his ire once again at oversight.

“I’m elected by the people, who I serve,” Austin said. “ I think we need to get back to that mentality and have better communication between administration and council.”

In Other News

• The Austin Packer Dance Team were honored at the beginning of Monday night’s meeting.

In February, they claimed Austin High School’s first state title in 34 years by winning the AA state title.

“That was magical and special for us,” head coach Kayla Sellers told the board.

• The board recognized Joe Sunderman, who is retiring after 37 years as street superintendent.

“He always held the city’s best interests at heart,” said City Engineer Steven Lang.

“I’ve really appreciated my job over the years,” Sunderman said.

IT Director  Don Tomlinson was also recognized, though he was not in attendance. He is retiring after 23 years on the job.